I watched the news of the Paris terrorist attacks unfold from my apartment in the Marais with a mix of sadness, horror and disgust. It’s a cliché to say it but I’ve never felt so much like it could have been me. Just that morning my mom and I ate breakfast in the 10th Arrondissement near where one of the shootings took place. I had so many questions. After the world (seemingly) came together to defy terrorism in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks how were we here nine months later with an even more gruesome and deadly attack? Why hadn’t the French government known or done more? Were we going to have to live in a police state and give up civil liberties that we hold dear? Was America safer than Europe or do the mass shootings that continue to take place there on an almost weekly basis pose an even greater risk? It seems no place is completely safe or immune from violence these days. The only thing I did know was I was not going to change my values or alter my way of life as the terrorists would like.
My mom and I still stood in the long security lines at Charles de Gaulle and boarded a plane to Munich the Saturday after the attack. The objective of our trip to Bavaria was to see Neuschwanstein Castle an hour and 45 minutes south of Munich. The famed castle built by Bavarian King Ludwig II was reportedly the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle and I’ve always wanted to see it in person.
As we drove out Sunday morning I had a pit in my stomach. I couldn’t stop thinking about Paris. My heart just ached and I even felt a little guilty not being there during such a time of crisis. As we escaped into the pastoral landscape dotted with farmhouses I started to feel slightly more at ease. I nearly gasped when I saw Neuschwanstein in the distance. The white castle with spindly turrets sits perched on a rocky outcropping and it’s wondrous to behold from a distance. Visitors must walk or take a horse drawn carriage to get there. We purchased our tickets and started hiking up the steep trail through the forest.
I got lost in the story of Ludwig II, which is very far from a fairytale. The eccentric Bavarian King built the castle in the late 1800s but he only lived there for three months before he was declared insane and unfit to rule. He was taken to another castle and a few days later he drowned in a lake under mysterious circumstances. The King loved fables and Neuschwanstein was his attempt to recreate a Medieval castle. It was never completely finished but via guided tour you can visit the lavish interiors like his bedroom with wall frescoes depicting the legend of Tristan and Isolde, the Moorish throne room and the ornate ballroom with a beautiful forest mural on one end. The views from the castle featuring mountains, Hohenschwangau castle below, Lake Alpsee, the river Lech and green and gold tinged forests is stunning.
Later that night I received an email from a family friend with a poem by Wendell Berry entitled The Peace of Wild Things. It’s about the healing effect of nature when tragedy happens. After spending the day outside, breathing in the crisp fall air, I did feel better. I know there will be no easy feeling of peace for those who lost loved ones in Paris. I’m not sure things will ever quite be the same again. It’s impossible not to feel a little less safe, but looking out over the valley I took comfort in knowing that the beautiful places in the world would endure and in that moment I felt peaceful and also more hopeful.
If you go
While the area’s most famous sites are in the small village of Hohenschwangau I recommend staying about a 5-10 minute drive away in Fussen. It’s where the train station is and there are more hotels and better restaurants.
This Art Nouveau style hotel has two restaurants and charming Bavarian décor. Spring for a theme room like the Ludwig II suite that comes with a carved wooden bed decorated with swans and pictures of the ill-fated king. A nice breakfast is included in your stay.
This large hotel located in a Baroque building a 2-minute walk from the train station is probably the most luxurious option in town. It has a spa, several restaurants and a bakery where you can sample cakes and chocolate truffles.
Hotel Sonne is less traditional and more eclectic with colorful contemporary furnishings in each uniquely decorated guestroom. Maximilians restaurant serves traditional Bavarian fare.
This highly affordable option is located in the heart of Fussen’s old town and has simple modern design and nice clean rooms. There are private double rooms as well as dorms.
This lively Italian restaurant has pizza, pasta and a lovely outdoor terrace.
Located in a restored 17th century house, Zum Hechten is also a hotel, but the cozy restaurant may be the best reason to visit. A local favorite it’s a great place to try regional specialities like pork leg with sour kraut and dumplings and ice cold lager from a local brewery.
This charming restaurant in a chalet on Lake Mittersee serves hearty meaty dishes and home made desserts like apple strudel. It’s charming in both winter and summer.
To visit the sites in Hohenschwangau you need to purchase tickets at the ticket center in the middle of town. Tickets to each of the three major tourist attractions can be purchased individually or you can do a combination ticket.
This castle perched above Schwangau is the second most visited site in Germany and draws about 1.4 million visitors a year. People are fascinated by its delicate fairy tale façade and by the story of its creator King Ludwig II. Visits are only possible via guided tour. You will book your tour at the ticket center and then hike, take a horse drawn carriage or a shuttle up to the castle. Tours start promptly so don’t be late, but they only take about 35 minutes. You will have time on your own to see the castle kitchens, explore the inner courtyard and hike around the castle to find the perfect vantage point for taking an Instagram worthy photo.
This yellow castle located on a smaller hill above town is much older than Neuschwanstein. King Ludwig grew up visiting the castle and it’s still decorated as it would have been when his parents, King Maximilian II and Queen Marie of Bavaria, spent time there. Unlike Neuschwanstein, it’s privately owned by the Duke of Bavaria, but visits are possible via a guided tour.
This museum on the edge of Lake Alpsee explains the lineage of the Bavarian kings and what really brought down King Ludwig II. He went deep into debt because of his lavish spending projects like Neuschwanstein. It’s safe to say there were many who wanted him out of power including his uncle Luitpold who became Prince Regent after he was deposed.